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The Warnings of Pinchas, Our first Jewish extremist

(This article was first published by on July 9th, 2014)

How can we read the story of Pinchas without thinking about the events that took place in Israel last week? How do we respond to the murder of four innocent teenagers? What insights can a difficult Torah portion give to our understanding of what has happened?

These past weeks have been very difficult for the people of Israel and all members of our Jewish family across the globe. On June 12th, three Israeli teenagers – Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach – were kidnapped as they hitchhiked to their homes. As a community, we held our collective breaths, hoping and praying that these boys would ultimately return home, but at the same time fearing the worst. On June 30th, more than two weeks after the boys went missing, their bodies were discovered, and our greatest fears were realized.

On the day after Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal were laid to rest, a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped and killed in what appears to have been a revenge attack. Another teenager was senselessly murdered; more blood was needlessly spilled in the gruesomely mistaken assumption that this, of all things, would help in any way.

It is difficult to read this week’s Torah portion of Pinchas without thinking about the escalating cycle of death and violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians this past week. One could argue that Pinchas is the first extremist, or Jewish vigilante, taking matters into his own hands, when he stabbed and killed the Israelite Zimri, together with the Midianite Cozbi.

Amongst the challenges for us as we read this story is the fact that Pinchas appears to be lauded by God, who offers him and his descendants God’s briti shalom – “My covenant of peace,” declaring that he and his descendants will be part of the brit c’hunat olam, the eternal covenant of the priesthood. On the surface, the Torah appears to reward Pinchas for his actions, a worrying precedent for the actions we have witnessed in this past week.

But when we look a little deeper, we may find something other than a reward in the two covenants given to Pinchas. For this man, who took the law into his own hands and who killed people, God brings him into a covenant of peace. God removes him from the realm of violence and war, placing him squarely in the realm of peace and ensuring that Pinchas will never again be in a position to bring death and destruction.

In driving this point home, God then places an eternal covenant of the priesthood upon Pinchas and his descendants. When the census of the Israelites is conducted, counting all of the men able to bear arms, the descendants of the Levites and the Priests are counted separately – their role is not to fight, but rather to serve God. Pinchas’ passion is channeled away from violence into the service of God, so that when the Israelites embarked on their campaign against the Midianites, Pinchas was there, but he was carrying the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts. He was removed from the fighting, possibly for fear of what he might do if given that role again.

Yet we may still struggle with the fact that Pinchas is given any kind of covenant after his vicious attack. This problem was addressed by the rabbis, who offered a further hidden critique of the actions of this man.

While this week’s Torah portion is named Pinchas, and while it is this week that we read of God’s covenant with him, it was actually last week that we read about the murder of Cozbi and Zimri. The rabbis chose to divide the Torah portions in such a way so that the act and the response would be read separately. Perhaps they too were uncomfortable with Pinchas receiving any covenantal “reward” as a result of his actions, and so they ensured that the covenant would be read out of context, separate from the gruesome act that preceded it.

Through the covenant, God sought to remove Pinchas from any arena in which his destructive tendencies could be unleashed. Then the rabbis, through the division of the Torah portion, sought to further separate the violent actions of Pinchas from any covenantal response.

As we see the potential for Israelis and Palestinians to fall into another cycle of violent exchanges, following Pinchas’ example of seeking vengeance and retribution, we must remember that after the bloodshed, God sought to find a covenant of peace. Today, as in Biblical times, we need to hear the voice calling on each one of us to refrain from the path of violence and revenge, following instead the path of God’s briti shalom – God’s personal covenant of peace.

About Rabbi Danny

Rabbi Danny
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